DEP fails to keep drillers a healthy distance from children Pennsylvania just released its final revisions to the rules on oil and gas surface operations. Unfortunately, the regulations from the Department of Environmental Protection do not include any meaningful protections for vulnerable populations such as children.
This is of concern in many areas of Pennsylvania and none more so than the Mars Area School District in Butler County.
There is a proposal to install six unconventional gas wells a half-mile from the campus where the district’s 3,250 students, preschool through grade 12, attend classes.
DEP should impose, at minimum, a one-mile setback between the boundary of an oil and gas facility and boundary of a school property.
There is no evidence that hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, can operate without risks to human health. The corporations doing the work have never done the research to try to minimize air and water pollution from equipment. Any claims of safety are based on wishful thinking. There is also no scientifically definitive setback distance that would prevent health and safety impacts from oil and gas infrastructure.
What’s more, a growing body of peer-reviewed science provides significant evidence of the public health risks of shale oil and gas development. Unhealthy levels of benzene and formaldehyde have been found near compressor stations.
Research has shown that some women in high-density drilling areas with greater than 125 wells per mile had an elevated risk of births with congenital heart disease and neural tube defects.
Researchers found in a recent study that in areas closest to active wells, levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are linked with lung and skin cancer as well as respiratory effects, exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable risk level. The risk level decreased only by 30 percent 3.2 miles away from an active well. A survey in Pennsylvania showed that the closer residents live to gas wells and facilities, the more they reported specific health symptoms like headaches and sore throats.
Research in Colorado showed that residents living less than or equal to one-half mile away from gas wells are at higher risk of respiratory, neurological and other health impacts and have a higher lifetime risk for cancer than those who live at farther distances. Two times as many residents in Pennsylvania living less than 1 kilometer (0.6 of a mile) from gas wells have reported more respiratory symptoms per person than those living 1 to 2 km or more than 2 km away.
Air pollution occurs during every stage of unconventional gas development. In an analysis of all chemicals used in unconventional gas extraction processes (such as fracking), 37 percent were found to evaporate easily and get into the air that people breathe. Of these volatile chemicals, 81 percent were found to have adverse effects on the brain and central nervous system. Chemicals in the air have the ability to be inhaled and be absorbed directly into the bloodstream, bypassing the body’s detoxifying mechanisms of the liver.
Children are especially vulnerable to environmental hazards and can have very different health outcomes than adults who are similarly exposed in the same locations. Children breathe more air and drink more water per unit of body weight than adults do and often put objects and their hands into their mouths more frequently than adults. If the air or water is contaminated, children will receive a higher dose than adults and are more vulnerable to exposures. Additionally, children are less able to process environmental chemicals and their young ages provide longer durations for diseases with long latency periods, such as leukemia, to develop.
Additional studies are underway and the scientific community is now playing catch-up with the rapid growth of this industry. We are only now just beginning to understand the implications of the shale gas industry for the environment and human health. Until better data emerge on the potential risks, precautionary measures are warranted with regard to the permitting of new wells close to schools.
Given the accidents like explosions and fires that have occurred, and documented water and air pollution from oil and gas infrastructure, policymakers, such as DEP, should exercise the utmost caution when making decisions that could impact children and other vulnerable populations. Decision-making around gas extraction should not hinge on demonstrating harm after the fact. It should hinge on demonstrating no risk of harm before the fact.
Jerome Paulson is immediate past chair of the executive committee, Council on Environmental Health, American Academy of Pediatrics. He has worked with the Protect Our Children Coalition, a Western Pennsylvania advocacy group committed to protecting schoolchildren from the health risks of shale gas drilling and infrastructure.
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